He’s 80 years old and has conquered cancer twice, but Chong still smokes – and wants to get you high.
Co-inventor of the stoner comedy Tommy Chong is still an example of all that is good about the marijuana industry. Like many early marijuana icons, he spent time in prison and the drug helped him come back from life-threatening medical conditions. But now, Chong is enjoying high times as one of the country’s most successful celebrity marijuana entrepreneurs.
SF Evergreen had the privilege of chatting with Chong just after visiting San Jose’s Airfield Supply Co. pharmacy, part of a tour of pottery shops selling its signature Chong’s Choice flower and vape cartridges.
California law requires journalists to get permission before recording a conversation, so that’s the first thing we ask.
“Absolutely,” Chong replies. “You can put a Michael Cohen on me.”
Tommy Chong is constantly pulling your leg, indulging in sarcasm, or putting you to the test with benign teasing in a way that an 80-year-old knows they can totally get away with. We ask how Chong’s Choice is doing and he immediately jumps into wild exaggeration.
“We’ve had offers from some of the major marijuana companies,” Chong says, clearly joking. “They are up to $100 million. But we’re going to persevere.”
His comedic instinct is still constant despite a difficult 15 years of personal setbacks, including jail time and debilitating health problems. But he remains imperturbable and always conveys a sense of quirkiness despite setbacks that would have broken anyone else.
His troubles started in 2003, a time when Californians got our first shiny new medical cannabis dispensaries. The legal marijuana industry was on the rise and it was easy to forget that technically marijuana remained illegal.
Chong had a painful memory of this. Federal agents invaded his Pacific Ocean Palisades returned home as part of an attack on his retail hookah operation, and he spent nine months in prison. Liked or not, he became the new public face of medical marijuana resistance.
“I was just an actor making movies and making records,” he says. ‘Then I was suddenly elevated to an ‘activist’. ”
A little Googling will show you that Chong is still a bong seller – but he’s learned his lesson and won’t sell them in the US
“I have a company that sells them, but only in Canada,” he says of his venture Cheech & Chong Glass, a collaboration with you-know-who. “If they make weed legal in America, federally, then it’s legal to sell the bongs. At the moment it is still illegal.”
The hits kept coming after Chong’s time in prison. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012, went into remission, and was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2015.
“Pot helped me heal everything,” says Chong, who has now overcome the disease twice. “The jar saved my life both times. That’s why I keep smoking it. I do not wanna die.”
There are more stoner milestones he won’t want to miss, including this month’s 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking pothead comedy Go up in smoke.
“I’ve been trying to get us a star on Hollywood Boulevard,” Chong says. “We couldn’t come up with the money.”
Los Angeles will still honor Cheech & Chong with a 40th anniversary Go up in smoke retrospective exhibition in the Grammy Museum. And yes, the opportunity brings Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong back together.
“We go all over the country and play casinos,” he says. “It’s our 40th anniversary Go up in smoke tour. We are all over the country with that.”
But Chong’s Choice is the man’s main occupation these days, and you can follow his exploits with it on the “Netflix of cannabis,” a new startup called Cannabis Club TV.
“Tommy has his own channel on our network,” says Cannabis Club TV CEO and co-founder Danny Keith SF Evergreen. “Because he’s been on TV for so long, he understands the power of that message. It was a no-brainer for him to step up and be our leading influencer.”
And it fits Tommy Chong to be the face of leadership in the new legal marijuana industry, bringing a voice of kindness and experienced experience to the big money-green rush.
“Chong’s Choice employees are the nicest people you will ever meet in your life,” says Chong. “That’s a byproduct of the marijuana industry, it’s created the nicest workforce in the world. You can’t go to a pharmacy and not see a smiling budtender.”
“It’s like going to therapy when you buy your weed,” he continues. “People say to you, ‘If this bothers you, maybe you should try one of these.’ You have old ladies coming in for their sleeping medication, and people in wheelchairs coming in to relieve the pain of their injuries. The whole marijuana experience has become so gentle and spiritual that it is going to create world peace. Maybe not in our lifetime, but we’re close.”
That’s a terribly philosophical take on the marijuana industry, especially for an 80-year-old juggling several full-time jobs — running a large-scale cannabis company, performing on national comedy tours, and just hanging out with Tommy Chong’s celebrity.
“Gotta get the signature thing under control, man,” he admits. “I’m going to the airport and I spend about an hour signing autographs.”
Tommy Chong has every right to be a jaded old man. The FBI sent him to prison ruining his career, and he has dealt with two of the most painful and difficult cancers.
Instead, Chong has resiliently molded herself into one of the happiest 80-year-olds in the world. He runs a legal cannabis empire, lends his voice to animated children’s films and became the oldest person to ever go on to become the Dancing with the stars semi-final – which he did at the age of 78.
We asked if he could give us the secret of his optimism and good humor, or leave us some wisdom for stoners of all ages.
“Get a good lawyer and deny it. Deny everything,” Chong jokes.